WASHINGTON — The White House Situation Room, a room filled with secrets and more secrets, is undergoing a $50 million renovation.
Actually, "space" is a misnomer. It is a 511 m², high security conference room and office complex located on the first floor of the west wing.
It's a place where history happens, where presidents meet with national security officials to discuss covert operations and sensitive government issues, speak with foreign leaders and resolve major national security crises.
In 2011, President Barack Obama and his team witnessed the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. President Donald Trump oversaw the 2019 operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. President Lyndon Johnson discussing plans for the Vietnam War.
The latest version was not a simple update: it took a whole year to completely overhaul the gut.
The White House opened the secret room to a group of reporters this week for a rare tour of the new exhibit. Situation Room Director Mark Gustafson said President Joe Biden visited the country on Tuesday and then received an intelligence briefing in the room.
"He loves it and thinks the updates are great," Gustafson said.
"People, the newly renovated White House Situation Room is working," Biden said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. "Thank you to everyone who works at this wonderful facility.
The renovated space has a modern and vintage feel. Old floors, furniture, computers and other technology were removed and replaced with original Maryland wood paneling, Virginia quarried stone, color-changing LED lighting and flat-panel displays. Glass tables become opaque at the touch of a button. The whole house smells like a new car.
However, there are still many landlines: mobile phones are not allowed in the safe rooms for security reasons. (Next to the exit door is a phone storage box where a bag of cocaine was found earlier this year.)
Access is strictly controlled and generally limited to the president's national security and military advisers. Anyone eavesdropping on a confidential meeting needs permission. Contractors performing renovations must also obtain a temporary security clearance. Illuminated icons flash green for privacy and red for privacy.
The secret complex was built by the Kennedy administration after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The president was President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy believes there should be a dedicated crisis management center where officials can coordinate intelligence more quickly and better.
This is definitely an improvement. But it wasn't exactly comfortable: Nixon's national security adviser and then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, described the room as "anxious, uncomfortable and fundamentally oppressive."
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the White House made significant improvements to the Situation Room, including major improvements to communications with the president on Air Force One and the presidential helicopter. Presidents used the complex for secure video conferencing until the technology became more portable. The last repair was carried out in 2007.
The complex is staffed around the clock by military and civilian personnel monitoring current events around the world.
There is a reception area with an American stone seal. Behind it is the main meeting room known as the "JFK Room". To the right is a small conference room and two soundproof lounges. To the left is the control floor, a 24-hour operations center
"It's a mix of traditional and modern," Gustafson said of the new space.
To create more space, workers dug three feet underground and installed sophisticated technology that allows White House officials to gather data from multiple agencies with the push of a button.
"We have full power now," Gustafsson said.
For those in the know: The "living room" reference does not exist. It's "Whist" from a complicated acronym: WHSR. (Washington likes the abbreviation better.)
Gustafson said the goal is to never need a complete overhaul again. These new spaces are designed to remove, update and replace panels with new technology and typically require less space. The room used by the computer servers was turned into a small conference room.
JFK's room has a long wooden table for the president with six leather chairs on each side and one at the head. Leather chairs line the walls. A huge high-tech screen stretches along the back wall. At the end of the chief's room was a seal larger than the old one, two feet (0.6 m) high.
There aren't many photos in the Situation Room, but the most famous ones are of Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Biden, and others following Bin Laden's mission.
It took place in a small conference room around the corner from JFK's office, which no longer exists. Gustafson said everything was cut and sent to the Obama Presidential Library. There were two small rooms in his place.
Another historical preservation is the old telephone box located in the complex. It was sent to the Archives of the Biden Presidential Library. Gustafson did not know if anyone had been sent to Trump.
Gustafson said staffers must be ready to set up a room for classified briefings at any time, and Biden has been known to show up unexpectedly at meetings, especially when Russia is invading Ukraine.
While the area was closed for maintenance, White House officials used other secure areas on campus. Gustafson says the renovated operating room is undergoing a soft opening: About 60% of the staff is back in the room, and more are coming every day.
One of the cosmetic improvements Gustafson noted was the ability to change the different two-foot-diameter seals hanging on the walls of the JFK Room, depending on who was attending the meeting. The presidential, vice president, and executive seals are stored in a nearby cabinet and can be quickly replaced.
Gustafson said previous visitors didn't think the room reflected the grandeur of the Hollywood Room.
Now they say it's like a movie, he said.